Phoenix Students Restore School To Reclaim Native American Identity A century-long government assimilation program boarded children from their tribes. Now some former students are turning their old school into a Native American cultural center to play their own music.
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Phoenix Students Restore School To Reclaim Native American Identity

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Phoenix Students Restore School To Reclaim Native American Identity

Phoenix Students Restore School To Reclaim Native American Identity

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In the late 19th century, the U.S. government tried to Westernize Native American children by sending them away from their tribes to boarding schools, often against their will. A reform movement that began in the 1920s eventually ended this forced assimilation. Now some former students are looking to take those changes a step further by reclaiming their old school in Phoenix and turning it into a cultural center for Native Americans. Christopher Livesay has more.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: From 1891 until 1990, just shy of a century, Phoenix Indian School boarded students from Navajo, Apache and other tribes across the Southwest. Patty Talahongva is a Hopi who went to Phoenix Indian until 1979. By then, attendance was voluntary. That wasn't the case for generations of students before her.

PATTY TALAHONGVA: There's a well-known quote that said "kill the Indian and save the man." And that was the mindset. When the students arrived at the school, their hair was cut, so they couldn't wear it in their traditional way. Their clothing was changed. They wanted to bring us to the boarding schools to educate us and literally assimilate us to be basically white people who were Christian.

LIVESAY: By the time Talahongva lived here, conditions had greatly improved, but traditions were still suppressed.


LIVESAY: Take the band, for instance.

ROSALEE TALAHONGVA: Tribes, we have our own instruments. We have our own kind of music. But that music was never incorporated into the band. These were European musical instruments. So how much more white can you get?

LIVESAY: Patty's sister, Rosalee Talahongva, played clarinet in the band and can still hear her conductor.

R. TALAHONGVA: We'd mess up, and he'd tap his stand - tap, tap, tap, tap , tap. You know, everybody stop, stop. You did that wrong. You come in on this count. One time, I think it was the trumpet section that kept missing that beat. He actually - he literally wrote a note - he's like do I need to invite you to play? Dear so and so, please - and he's writing this note. It was the funniest thing - well, now it is.

LIVESAY: The Indian School band made a name for itself nationwide, marching twice in the Rose Bowl Parade.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: From Phoenix, Ariz., comes the gay colors of a real band of Indians.


LIVESAY: It's a complicated legacy. Patty Talahongva and her old classmates are proud of their band's accomplishments, but she acknowledges they were also wheeled out for PR.

P. TALAHONGVA: The band was actually used as a recruitment tool. And the idea was show how great the band is and tell the kids from the reservation schools hey, when you get to high school age, you can come to Phoenix Indian High School. Pick Phoenix Indian High School and play in our cool band.

LIVESAY: Only three of Phoenix Indian's 29 buildings still stand, and the band room is one of them. The risers are gone, and blobs of glue residue on the walls mark where sound panels once hung.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If I have a problem, we just run through a drum set here.

LIVESAY: Today, Patty Talahongva is working with two local Native American nonprofits to restore the defunct band building and turn into a Native American cultural center in the heart of Phoenix.

P. TALAHONGVA: So this space here will be a classroom. And this classroom is right next to the commercial kitchen we're going to put in here.

LIVESAY: There will also be a gallery and a space for concerts right where band students used to slog through John Philip Sousa...


LIVESAY: ...Students like Talahongva's sister, Rosalie.

R. TALAHONGVA: Oh, my gosh.

LIVESAY: She hasn't been back in the music room since she was a teenager.

R. TALAHONGVA: Just this floor - this floor is almost the same. I mean, it still had the echoey kind of sound when you walked in it that just kind of brings things back.

LIVESAY: Now the music room will be a place where Native Americans can remember their past while reclaiming their musical identity.


DAVID MONTOUR: Sounds good in here, this old music room.

LIVESAY: David Montour plays flute with the band Clan-Destine. He's joined by his front man Cano Sanchez to check out the acoustics for future concerts.

CANO SANCHEZ: (Singing Native American tune).

LIVESAY: This is the first time music has been played in here in 25 years. Organizers suspect it's also the first time that Native American music is being celebrated under this roof.

SANCHEZ: (Singing Native American tune).

LIVESAY: Vocalist Cano Sanchez.

SANCHEZ: There were some lonely children here at one point. Look how far we've come in a way as a society, as a people. And you can hold onto tragedy, which, you should always remember it, but you should learn from it and move forward. It makes me very proud, and it fills my soul today to be able to - to somewhat come here and bless the area with our being, you know, with our presence and hopefully be blessed as well.

LIVESAY: Such is the power of music, he says, especially when you get to play your own.


LIVESAY: For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay.

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